Review of chapter 40: Interactive Documentary: Film and politics in the digital era," James Lyons. Routledge Companion to Cinema and Politics, ed. Yannis Tzioumakis and Claire Molloy.
by Kiersten Depina
Throughout recent decades, society has been advancing technologically at an accelerating rate. While acquiring many new forms of technology, we find ourselves entering into an era of digital landscapes in which social and political ideas originate. The new technology that is presented changes the different processes and the nature of political and social interaction. One way in which humankind has been able to portray political ideas and messages is through the medium of documentary film. As we continue to digitize politics, new forms of documentary are being released that not only increase interactivity and participation from the audiences, but also question the meaning and understanding of ‘documentary’ itself. In chapter forty of the text, “The Routledge Companion to Cinema and Politics,” author James Lyons describes the ways in which documentary adapts to maintain political function as the world digitizes, specifically through digital interactive documentary.
Lyons begins by discussing the definition of political documentary. In this introductory section of the article, Lyons demonstrates that the definition of political documentary is very broad, and encompasses a wide variety of different films with different political agendas. He quotes John Corner, who states that documentary should be “socially useful storytelling” (Lyons, 2016, pg. 492). In reference to Michael Chanan, he says that documentary has “become more individual and personal” (2016, pg. 492). Drawing upon Debra Zimmerman, she says that if a film causes its audience to perceive an issue differently, than it can be seen as political (2016, pg. 492).
In addition to the definition of political documentary, he describes the definition of specifically interactive political documentary. Lyons explains how there is a group of films that sits in between films focused directly on politics and those that include political undertones of everyday life. He describes how this middle ground is covered a lot in a new wave of digital interactive documentary. This middle ground includes discussion about control of resources and the exercising of social powers, and more specifically, poverty, racism, the environment, etc. As a result of the rapidly developing areas of cultural production, many issues related to terminology and classification, are debated. Lyons quotes both Galloway and Mandy Rose, saying that interactive documentary is “any documentary that uses interactivity as a core part of its delivery mechanism (2016, pg. 493), and that it “opens up to participation...participation in terms of making” (2016, pg. 493). With the advancements in technology and the increasing digitization of media, many new forms of documentary are being released. These forms of documentary push the boundaries of traditional forms of cinema, forcing the industry to question what the term “interactive documentary” encompasses. Lyons points out how Nichols says that the “textual authority shifts towards the social actors recruited” (2016, pg. 493) and their direct contact with the filmmakers. In contrast, more recent definitions differ from this idea, saying that the ‘social actors’ do not need to have direct encounters with the filmmakers. Due to the abundance of new digital mediums, interactions are no longer restricted to the filmmakers and their subjects, and interactions no longer have to be direct contact or encounters. The interactivity of the documentary can also include the actions that the audience or viewers take in response to the documentary.
Throughout the rest of the article, Lyons references Gaudenzi in order to explain the different types of interactivity that exists under the label of ‘interactive documentary’. Gaudenzi’s work focuses on the ways in which participants interact with and encounter the documentary. Lyons describes how Gaudenzi categorizes these interactions into “four dominant understandings of interactivity” (2016, pg. 493) and that each “create a different dynamic with the user, the author, the artifact, and its context” (2016, pg. 493), as well as raise specific issues pertaining to documentary politics. These four modes include: hypertext, conversational, experiential and participative.
In the first mode that Lyons discusses, he claims that it is arguably the most prominent, and is titled ‘hypertext’. This mode is described as a documentary based on a series of selections created from options that are generated by a database. This type of documentary is often found on the Internet – as it is designed for that specific platform – and is referred to as a webdoc. Lyons gives an example of a webdoc: Journey To The End Of Coal (2008). This webdoc addresses the viewer in the first person, and simulates an investigative journalistic environment. The viewer makes choices from a list of selections, leading from one webpage to another, with each webpage containing text, photos, and short video interviews. This type of narrative scheme differs from a traditional film, by allowing the viewer to view the documentary under a time scheme that is not restricted. Lyons once again references Gaudenzi as he notes that this particular structure puts control in the hands of the audience, as they are given the opportunity to visit different sites found within the webdocs database.
Although the first mode provides the audience with a more investigative approach to the documentary, Lyons describes how this interactive option distracts users from questioning the argument that is presented in the content they are viewing. He is correct in saying that the choices are a form of distraction, as they lead the viewer to feel as if they are in complete control of the narrative. In reality, the viewer has no control of the content, but rather a control over their individual view of the static content. In contrast to Lyons idea, the film immerses the viewer in not only a full screen investigative environment but provides the opportunity to go back and view the documentary multiple times, each time selecting different options. Although the underlying argument of the documentary stays the same, each time the documentary is viewed, a new narrative is formed based on the selections. Through the presentation of multiple narratives, the audience is forced to question the argument as a result of questioning their own choices and decisions. In this instance the audience is not distracted, but forced to construct a deeper understanding.
The second interactive mode that Lyons discusses is referred to by Gaudenzi as ‘conversational’. He explains how this mode has a goal of creating 3D interactive worlds that viewers can navigate seamlessly. Two examples that Lyons provides of conversational interactive documentaries include Unconstitutional (2004) and Project Syria (2014). In Unconstitutional (2004), the documentary focus was on Guantanamo Bay and the detainees held in the prison camp. Using the website Second-Life, the world takes the viewer’s avatar through the experience of being incarcerated in Guantanamo Bay, through 3D simulation and point-and-click option selection. Lyons quotes digital artist Peggy Weil as she comments on the purpose of the project: “we do not torture your avatar, so rather than a torture chamber, we elected to build a contemplation chamber, a series of spaces to contemplate the practices going on in Guantanamo” (2016, pg. 493). These spaces include real footage, news stories, photos, audio recordings, poems from detainees, and interrogation transcripts read by actors.
Another example that Lyons describes is the documentary Project Syria. The project uses a 3D system to simulate a rocket shell attack in the streets of Aleppo, Syria, and being transported to a Syrian refugee camp in Iraq. The audio and visuals were rendered using real video and photos, and Lyons discusses how this provides the audience with a personal experience of the event rather than receiving information from a secondary source.
A question that Lyons poses in response to these documentaries is the political effectiveness of the works. The main positive aspect of these simulation and virtual reality systems is that it creates new political dialogue that stems more from experience and virtual immersion rather than being based on the experiences and stories of others. In contrast, Project Syria was shown at the 2014 World Economic Forum, in order to compel leaders to act. Lyons explains that due to the project’s limited circulation, the producers can only hope that the project receives attention from the right individuals. Being only accessible by a small portion of people limits its political effectiveness and opportunity to provoke action. One idea that Lyon does not address however is the opportunity for virtual reality documentaries to be formatted for widespread accessibility. The first project, Unconstitutional, was released on a website that is accessible to anyone with access to the Internet. Documentaries like Project Syria that are only available as an installation, might be able to be reworked in the future, to be viewed from home on more modern devices such as the new Sony PlayStation VR.
Another question that Lyons poses is a documentary’s ability to provoke its audience to act in response to their individual experiences. He explains how, due to the growth of locative technologies, many different innovative projects have utilized these technologies to document events and issues occurring around the globe in specific settings. These projects are labeled ‘experiential’ and are the third mode of interactive documentary. Lyons provides a few examples of this type of documentary. The first example is Eyes on the Prize (1987-1990). The documentary was created by students who documented social justice problems in their neighborhood and tagged these narratives to their location using Google Earth. Handheld GPS devices geo-tagged the stories so that individuals who were in those specific locations could play them back. A second example is Coffee Deposits: Topologies of Chance (2010). This documentary was situated in Istanbul, and attempted to chart the lives of everyday people in the city through “in-situ coffee shop encounters” (Lyons, 2016, p. 497). Lyons describes how this particular project was halted when it was confronted with how Islamic politics impacted certain people in the city – a mobile encounter with a transsexual person revealed a story of harassment and discrimination, relating to the use of laws to take LGBT individuals into police custody.
Both of these examples demonstrate what Lyons describes as how “eliciting participant testimony can lead in unexpected geographic and discursive directions” (Lyons 2016, p. 497) and how these documentaries can evolve into works of “foregrounding issues of political and social justice” (2016, p. 497). Coffee Deposits in particular, resulted in the dialogue of an extremely political happening in the city, and due to the controversy, forced the project to shut down. Both of these projects give voices to those who would otherwise not have one, and as a result, many different narratives can emerge. These examples in particular demonstrate Lyons earlier reference to Chanan, when saying that filmmakers are trying to make work that shows the “politics of identity” (2016, pg. 492). Another example is the Quipu Project (2014 –) that aimed to share stories of indigenous women affected by the sterilization policy in Peru in the late 90s. This project uses a toll-free telephone number to allow women to record personal testimonies, and then uploads these testimonies to their project website. The importance of the project is that it gives a voice to those who were previously unable to communicate their experience with the rest of the world. In the words of co-director Rosemarie Lerner, “for the first time they can actually become part of a wider dialogue” (2016, pg. 497). Lyons states that the point of this particular documentary is not to recreate the event, but to “make conditions for the story to emerge” (2016, pg. 497), and that the documentary addresses the underlying conditions of isolation and disempowerment. What Lyons does not mention is that not only does this documentary allow for the story to emerge, but it also allows for multiple narratives that can be perceived as both separate and as a whole. The director is no longer the sole voice of the project, and many different people are given the opportunity to become directors of their own narratives.
Another important point about the Quipu project is that it is through the participation of the women that this documentary exists; and it is through this form of documentary that new forms of collaboration can occur. This leads into the final category of interactivity that Lyons discusses: the ‘participative’ mode. Lyons explains that the participants contributing to the creation of a project can be viewed as both the creation of the content and to connect with others who share their experiences. The example he gives of this particular mode is 18 Days in Egypt (2011 –), which described on their website is an “interactive, crowd-sourced documentary project about the ongoing Egyptian revolution” (Lyons, 2016, p. 498). The project focuses on the protesters of the Egyptian uprising in 2011, by aggregating their social media content through the hashtag #18DaysinEgypt. Lyons describes how an interactive platform called GroupStream was launched in 2012 “crowd-source, contextualize, and archive photographs, texts, tweets and video clips” (Lyons, 2016, p. 498). Lyons argues that this documentary contrasts other forms of documentary as it is “designed to collate and document participatory experiences through an open and evolving database of user-generated content” (Lyons, 2016, p. 498), and that this form of documentary is a response to the original political catalyst using an interactive format.
Lyons is correct in saying that this form of documentary contrasts other forms of documentary, due to it being open and continuously evolving. What Lyons does not discuss is that unlike other forms of interactive documentary, the content does not go through a secondary source before being released. The uploaded content is directly inputted into the database by the creator and is not edited or censored in anyway. Even if the content is not directly featured on their website, the hashtag #18DaysinEgypt is still sorting the content into the same database and exists for the world to see. This once again disrupts the definition of documentary, as the project itself can be perceived at its core as simply a hashtag. In this way, new forms of interactive participatory documentary changes its ‘social actors’ into directors and narrative creators.
In conclusion, the majority of the article provides a brief glance into the ever-expanding world of interactive documentary. The article provides an in depth look at each of the four modes of interactivity in a simple and accurate way, and describes the spectrum of interactive documentaries in an unbiased manner. Lyons arguments are based upon information gathered from those working in the documentary industry, but do not expand on the impact of the projects he describes. He remains very neutral on the subject of interactive documentary as he mainly explains the different kinds, but where he interjects with personal opinion, he briefly argues his points leaving them to exist more as shallow facts.
One overarching argument that Lyon presents is that none of the documentaries that he presents in the article allow for the audience the input of information as well as input structural ideas. This argument can be combatted due to the structure of the 18 Days in Egypt documentary. All of interactive political documentary arguably relies on the relationship between the audience and filmmaker, as they would not exist without that relationship. The relationship determines how the documentary is structured, for example, the entire 18 Days in Egypt documentary is created and structured based on the content of what the participants submit.
Overall, interactive digital documentary breaks the mold of what a documentary is traditionally understood to be. Documentary adapts to the changing digital landscapes in society by incorporating different digital platforms and mediums, in order to find new ways of storytelling. This type of documentary focuses predominantly on the relationship between the audience and the creators, and blurs the line between consumer and producer.
Lyons, J. (2016). Interactive Documentary: Film and politics in the digital era. In Routledge Companion to Cinema and Politics (pp. 491-499). Routledge.